The Bunker: A Different Chinese Abacus

The Bunker logo, done in military stencil, in front of the Pentagon building

The Bunker, delivered to our subscribers Wednesdays at 7 a.m., is a newsletter from the desk of National Security Analyst Mark Thompson. Sign up here to receive it first thing, or check back Wednesday afternoon for the online version.


What’s missing from the Pentagon’s China closet 

The Pentagon’s latest report(PDF) on China’s growing military might was an eye-opener for what it contained — as well as for what it left out. “China’s nuclear arsenal on track to double by 2030, Pentagon reports,” the Washington Post’s headline said. “New Pentagon report claims China now has over 500 operational warheads,” NPR radioed. “China is building up its nuclear arsenal faster than predicted, U.S. report says,” NBC fretted.  

Scary headlines, to be sure. And while the Chinese threat is real, it needs to be kept in perspective. First, China’s more than 500(PDF) warheads represent about 10% of the more than 5,000 possessed by the U.S. And amid all the hoopla about China’s growing nuclear arsenal, there was scant attention paid to its withering economy and the demographic doldrums now infecting the country. Those are the foundations upon which military power is built. “The bottom line is that China probably will never match America’s power, much less surpass it,” usually-reliable Pentagon pal Loren Thompson (no relation) wrote recently in Forbes. “A combination of smart policies in Washington and deep-seated defects in China precludes the Middle Kingdom from ever being a true superpower.” 

If you’re of a certain age and think you’ve heard this tune before, you’re right. During the Reagan administration, the Pentagon rolled out Soviet Military Power nearly every year. It was a glossy publication, crammed with full-color(PDF) James Bond-ish paintings, done by the Defense Intelligence Agency, of Moscow’s latest fearsome-looking weapons. (This CIA copy[PDF], seemingly the only complete version posted by the U.S. government online, is a wan black-and-white reproduction … you’d think if the Pentagon were proud of this tome, it would be on its website). DIA artists did their work based on top-secret U.S. intelligence. They smudged critical elements in their drawings to keep the Soviets guessing about just how good our spy satellites and other intelligence assets were. And to keep Americans guessing about just how big those 10-foot-tall Soviet soldiers really were. 

Like the Soviet Union, China is an increasingly brittle autocracy whose hyped low-end torque would shatter if its pedal were pressed to the metal. The congressionally-mandated Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China may lack the pizzazz of Soviet Military Power. But make no mistake about it. Both have the same goal: to boost U.S. military spending to unprecedented levels by scaring American taxpayers. Again. 


One reason the U.S. pays too much for defense 

There’s a word you hear a lot when talking about Pentagon spending: wastefraudandabuse. It’s kind of a shorthand for lumping together all of the ways the Defense Department, and its contractors, squander our money. They’re the Three Stooges running rampant up and down Pentagon hallways, driving defense spending ever upward. But unlike Larry, Curly, and Moe, wastefraudandabuse isn’t three individuals who can be tracked down and have their Department of Defense IDs wrung from their necks. Rather, it’s a far more insidious layering of fat that is marbled throughout the Pentagon’s military meat. And boy, is it juicy. 

An October 13 report(PDF) from the Defense Department inspector general concluded that 92% — 92%! — of Army ground systems parts are deteriorating, or in danger of deteriorating, because Pentagon depots are storing them improperly, often outside without required protection. “The continued improper storage and care,” the IG said, “may result in increased restoration or replacement costs, which would require additional funding and time, and negatively impact operational readiness.” And the Army admits it has another problem with parts. “Sometimes we don’t really know where all of our excess equipment is,” Army Undersecretary Gabe Camarillo conceded October 10. “We have a lot of it, and it’s accumulated over time.” These are only peeks into a teeny-tiny corner of the Pentagon, but the place is salted with such wastefraudandabuse

Things aren’t much better on the contractors’ side of the ledger. Navy civilian budget chief Russell Rumbaugh detailed one facet of the problem October 16. He was explaining the challenges associated with getting the service’s major suppliers to account for all the Pentagon-paid-for components they have on hand. “My prime contractors hold stuff the government has already bought, and they’re going to put it on [weapons] that [are] all over the place — sensors we bought, a combat system we bought that’s going to go on a ship, it includes ordnance that’s being held at various prime contractors,” he said. “And when my audit team shows up and goes, ‘Hey — where are these solid rocket motors that you own?’ — the prime contractors say ‘Oh, that's not in our contract, we don’t have to tell you that,’” Rumbaugh related.  

“How can you possibly keep a straight face and say that? How can you not believe that should be an automatic ‘Yes, it’s right here, let me show you, please walk this way,’” Rumbaugh said, plainly exasperated. “Two primes gave my audit team that answer within the last two weeks. That’s ridiculous. Ridiculous!” He likened such contractors — unnamed, of course — to “somebody just trying to give me a stiff arm and be a jerk.”  


Bending toward justice  

On Friday, October 27, Georgia’s Fort Gordon — named for a Confederate general — will officially become Fort Eisenhower, named for Dwight Eisenhower, the former Army general and president. It will mark the last of nine U.S. Army bases to be recently stripped of their rebel-honoring names in favor of those belonging to true U.S. military heroes. Congress created a commission in 2020 to scrub Confederate names from U.S. military bases following the protests into the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. 

It’s like many hot-button items The Bunker has covered during his decades in and around the Pentagon. There were protests that women in uniform, women in combat, and LGBTQ+ people serving their country would hurt the U.S. military. None has turned out to be true. And you know what? Junking the names of Confederate traitors from the front gates of some of the U.S. Army’s biggest and most storied posts, a cause The Bunker has championed for nearly a decade, didn’t hurt a bit, either. 

Plus, it was the right thing to do.  


Here’s what has caught The Bunker’s eye recently  

U.S.-provided arms have not led Israel to peace” 

Former U.S. State Department official Josh Paul explained why he quit his job in this October 23 Washington Post op-ed. 

Haunted housing 

Militaries families say they face tough challenges when it comes to dealing with landlords (and the Pentagon) building private housing for U.S. troops, René Kladzyk reported for the Project On Government Oversight October 23.  

Why The Bunker?(PDF)  

We try to answer that question in the Center for Defense Information’s latest Defense Monitor newsletter. 

Thank you for dropping by The Bunker this week. Please consider forwarding this on so others can sign up here